Originally posted November 7, 2013


When a dog comes into my classroom I have a little under a second to determine if that dog is going to be safe to handle and train in the setting we are in.  If we are in a group class, I have a responsibility to my students and their dogs to make sure that everyone is safe at all times.  The way that I assess if a dog is safe to have in the classroom is to carefully observe what he is doing.  A problem that sometimes crops up is that the dogs I am seeing may be dangerous, but the people may have lived with this dangerous behaviour for so long that they don’t recognize the risk anymore.  They will tell me that the behaviour is “normal” for that dog.

Our perceptions of normal have a lot to do with what we have directly experienced ourselves.  If we grow up in a home that is nurturing and caring, we consider that to be a normal family.  If we grow up in a home where people shout and bully, then shouting and bullying is our definition of a normal family.  When we live with dogs with issues, then our normal may include behaviours that just aren’t normal.  I remember visiting one of my sisters when she had left home.  She had an elderly Labrador retriever, inherited from her then boyfriend’s mother.  Tacked to the fridge was a list of things you could not do to the dog lest the dog bite you.  On the list were things such as picking up spilled food off the kitchen floor, reaching out and touching the dog, staring at the dog, singing or laughing loudly, and dancing.  My sister’s normal revolved around avoiding getting the dog worried enough that she would bite.  Sadly, my sister did not recognize that this is not a normal way to live with a dog.

Dogs have a culture.  Many people don’t recognize their culture, and when their dog transgresses against what is normal culture, the people are surprised and often shocked when their dog gets into trouble.  Staring is not polite dog behaviour.  Neither is charging.  Or walking in a straight line directly into another dog’s space.  Or barking and lunging against a leash.  Often when a family comes in to get help for their dog, their dog is engaging in a lot of these behaviours and the results are that the dog is getting into trouble either with people or with other dogs.  The trouble they get into is varied.  The dog may be getting attacked by other dogs.  Or people may be avoiding the dog.  Or the dog may have attacked a person.  Often the dog has been signalling for a long time that he is uncomfortable and that he is going to bite, but the people who live with this dog don’t recognize the signals because their normal is not the normal that includes these signals as danger signals.  One of the toughest aspects of my job is facing a dog who is clearly telling me that he might bite, when the family has been living with the dog for a long time, and feels that the dog is safe because this is their “normal”.

The other issue they come with is when their expectations of “normal” are not safe.  When they have a dog who is dangerous at the door, and they feel that the dog is protecting the home and that protecting the home is “normal”, then they encourage a dangerous behaviour over and over again.  One of the very common behaviours that I see people doing is sitting down in public with their dog on a leash, and the dog is standing between them and the rest of the world, with a rigid posture, staring at whomever approaches.  The dog is guarding the person the way he might guard a precious bone.  The person thinks the dog is relaxed and happy but in fact the dog is engaged in a very dangerous behaviour that the person is supporting and encouraging.  The first problem with this behaviour is that the dog is treating the person not like a partner, but like a possession.  This is not the foundation of a healthy relationship.  The second part of the problem is that the dog is guarding his stuff; we have a name for this; resource guarding, and it is one of the most common reasons that dogs bite.  When you think that guarding an item from people is a normal behaviour, you don’t ask about if it is a safe behaviour.

When I ask about the signals I am seeing, often my clients will tell me that they have not seen the behaviours that I am seeing or that the dog “doesn’t really mean it”.  They tell me that this is “normal” for their dog.  I don’t think my clients are lying.  I think that their normal includes these behaviours as though they are benign.  I think that these clients have lived with the behaviours for so long that they are part of the normal of their lives.  The dog offers these behaviours so frequently, that the owners of these dogs stop seeing these behaviours as abnormal or dangerous.  What behaviours have I seen in this realm?  Growling.  Air snapping.  Sleeve grabbing.  Guarding.  Hard eye.  Staring.  Lunging.

When I first meet a dog, I have less than a second to determine if the dog is safe or dangerous.   The behaviours are “normal” but they are not safe.  One of the first and most obvious signs is growling.  Not all dogs will growl, but if a dog growls when I first meet him, I pay attention.  Growling is a signal that tells me that the dog is about to bite.  It is an auditory signal and it is pretty hard wired into the dog; they don’t fake it.  If the dog is growling, I back off.  I take whatever pressure that is on the dog off the dog, and make things calmer.  This may help to prevent a bite.  When I work with clients who are upset about growling, the first thing I do is teach them the R and R Method of dealing with Growling, which is outlined here:  Growling is actually part of a bite sequence.  The bite sequence is Orient, Freeze, Growl, Lunge, Bite.  If you are lucky you have a dog who will growl for a long, long time before lunging and biting.  During the orienting and freezing phase, you are going to see a lot of body language that tells you what is coming next.  Here are some faces I see in class with comments on what they are telling me.

This dog has his lips pulled forward and tight and his tongue is far back in his mouth so that if he bites, he won’t bite himself.  This dog actually means business in my opinion.  His ears are pulled tightly back, and he looks tense and worried.  This may be his normal and this may be something that the owner sees every day.  The owner may even feel that her dog is “safe” because her dog does this so often.   Even if I am wrong, I would not reach for this dog because I will always believe the dog and err on the side of caution.  Image credit: evdoha / 123RF Stock Photo

When the sort of dog shown above shows up at class, and he does from time to time, he is telling me not to touch him.  Specifically, he is telling me that he is ready to bite because he has pulled his tongue back, and pulled his lips forward so that he won’t bite his own mouth if he needs to do his teeth.  His ears are also pulled tightly back against his head, telling me that he is really uncomfortable.  I look at the distance from the corner of the eye to the corner of the ear to tell me if he is holding his ears tightly against his head because sometimes the shape of the ear can be misleading.

Here is a better image of the distance between the corner of the eye and the ear.  Notice that this lab has his ear pulled right back as far as he can pull it away from his eye.

 Copy of zd
This dog is showing us both the round eye typical of a distressed dog and the ears pulled as far back as possible from the eye.  Don’t reach for this dog.  He isn’t deceiving us with his facial expression.  He is uncomfortable and upset.

Hard eye is the term we use to describe the hard rounded eye of the intense dog who is glaring directly at you.  This dog is extremely dangerous and likely to bite.  He is not happy and relaxed.  One of the things that characterizes this eye is the dilation of the pupil.  This doesn’t come alone though; when the dog’s eye is hard, he also has his ears pulled back so that the skin between the eye and the ear is taut.  I will never reach in to give a treat to these dogs because they are clearly telling me to stay away.

This little dog is clear in her message; I am not happy or comfortable, and I am going to bite if you reach in towards me.  Notice how dilated her pupils are; I can fix green eye in my pictures, but often this clue in an image helps me to better notice how big the dog’s pupils are.  Another clue that this dog is uncertain is her right paw-she has lifted it and dogs often do this when they are uncertain.  Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander

Here is a dog who is relaxed but orienting on something.  He is relaxed but alert, and he could become aroused and tense very quickly.  When a dog is orienting on a variety of things, he is hypervigilant, and hypervigilant dogs live in a very tough world; everything that they hear or see is a potential threat, and they get stuck in a cycle of looking for threats until eventually they find one and their concerns are reinforced by the stimulus that frightens them.  Orienting is a normal, common behaviour, and as long as the dog isn’t orienting on everything, I don’t worry too much.  This dog is alert, but relaxed so this is a dog I would reach in to and say hello. If he walked into my classroom and was orienting on a wide variety of things, I would not consider him safe though.  He likely wouldn’t have the softer facial features that this dog does if he were hypervigilant.

Orienting is the first step in the sequence that leads to a bite, but it doesn’t mean that the dog will follow along to the end of that sequence.  Often dogs will orient when they hear something or something catches their eye and then they will relax again.

It is important to understand that the dog I see in my classroom may well be very relaxed and safe in other situations.  He may well be relaxed and easy going out in the park, but I am not in charge of what happens in the park.  I am only in charge of what happens in my classroom.  I have to make quick decisions about the safety of the animals in my classroom, and looking at still images helps me to practice my skills of isolating specific behaviours to consider when I am making that decision.  I am always going to decide who comes in my class and who does not based on what I see the dog telling me.  If the dog is telling me that he is safe and relaxed, I will listen to that.  If the dog is telling me that he is tense, guarding or frightened, I am not going to disregard what he has to say.  I am going to keep people and their dogs safe in my classroom.



Last time I talked about talking to my dogs. This time I want to talk about listening and more importantly hearing what they have to say. Dogs are non verbal species. This means that they can only tell us things by their behaviour. It is easy to miss the conversation altogether if you aren’t paying attention and this is an important component of having a successful relationship. Dogs and other non human learners have a lot to say, if we just listen.

This morning when I woke up, D’fer, my elderly Chesapeake was in my room, lying by the bed and panting. And panting and panting and panting. As I became more aware of the day, I tuned into him and I could see that he was obviously in distress. As a non verbal species, it is really tough to figure out what was distressing him, but I can make some good guesses. He is old and often painful, so a good guess is that he was in some pain this morning. He had a heart murmur that resolved, but it could be that he is having heart issues again. We have had a pretty significant weather change today, from cold and wet to hot and humid, so maybe that is what is going on. Noticing what he is doing, I have some choices; I can get up and see if he needs some pain meds, or I can roll over and go back to sleep.

Here, D'fer is telling me that he is relaxed and out of pain.  I can tell this because he is curled into a ball, alseep and not vocalizing.  I also know this because I took the picture just after he got his evening pain medication!  When I see a dog in this state, I can hear that he does not want to be disturbed.  I could wake him if I needed to, but it would be unkind and disrespectful to do so for no reason.  D'fer can sleep in front of me because he knows I will hear him and respect what he is saying.  Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander 2014
Here, D’fer is telling me that he is relaxed and out of pain. I can tell this because he is curled into a ball, alseep and not vocalizing. I also know this because I took the picture just after he got his evening pain medication! When I see a dog in this state, I can hear that he does not want to be disturbed. I could wake him if I needed to, but it would be unkind and disrespectful to do so for no reason. D’fer can sleep in front of me because he knows I will hear him and respect what he is saying. Photo Credit: Sue Alexander 2014

Imagine for a moment that this was your spouse and you woke up and he or she was breathing heavily, and obviously in distress. What would you do? Perhaps waking him up and checking in might be a good idea. Or perhaps you know that your spouse normally breathes like this in the morning and you just need to nudge him to roll over and you can both have a lie in. What about if this was a newborn? Or your aging grandfather? Knowing something about those who surround you is an important part of “hearing” what they say.

The above example is one where my dog’s behaviour was not one of choice and it is up to me to first off notice and secondly to choose the right action. The action I took was to get up, toilet him and get him his meds. He is on daily pain medication and he needed his next dose. Not all of what the dog tells me is because of his physiology though. Some of the dog’s behaviour is about things that he wants or needs.

When Eco my German Shepherd goes to the gate and looks out at the geese on the pond, I know he would like me to open the gate so that he can go chase geese. He will stare longingly at the geese through the gate, look back at me and then look back to the geese. If I open the gate, he will chase the geese into the sky. Eco thinks that chasing geese is terrific. If it is fall and the geese are not nesting, or if it is spring before the geese nest, I sometimes let him do this as it prevents the geese from eating all of our pasture. If the geese have goslings though, I will tell him that it is not his turn and he will sadly turn away from the gate.  In effect we have a conversation, where he tells me what he wants and I tell him if he can have it or not.

Eco is telling me that there is something happening just outside of our front door.  He doesn't go out because he has been taught not to go out that door unless given permission, but he does like to look when the door is open.  I took this picture as John and I were unloading groceries from the truck.  Eco likes watching things and when I listen to what he is saying I can tell that things are happening.  In this case, Eco was telling me that John was coming up the path.  Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander 2014
Eco is telling me that there is something happening just outside of our front door. He doesn’t go out because he has been taught not to go out that door unless given permission, but he does like to look when the door is open. I took this picture as John and I were unloading groceries from the truck. Eco likes watching things and when I listen to what he is saying I can tell that things are happening. In this case, Eco was telling me that John was coming up the path. Photo Credit: Sue Alexander 2014

My dogs have ways to tell me a good number of things. Some of them are things that I have taught them to do and some of them are things that they have picked up on their own. If I am watching a movie, D’fer may come up and sit in front of me and if that doesn’t cause me to share then he will turn on his sad Chesapeake act and if THAT doesn’t work, he will rest his chin on my lap, because that almost always works.  D’fer knows how to ask politely, and then with some emphasis and finally he will beg.  He knows that I rarely refuse him if he is truly being cute!

D’fer was trained to alert me to medical events; he would tell me if I was about to get a migraine or have a panic attack. Without getting into how we trained that, if the conditions were right for me to get ill, he would “tell” me by flipping my arm with his nose, or by putting his feet on my chest. He would tell me that I needed to take medication and I would do as told!  This is more of a one way directive, but it is communication indeed.

Today in one of my privates we were working with a dog who has some serious issues with other dogs. We were working to teach him that he can approach without losing his cool. A big part of what we do in that sort of exercise is to “listen” to what the dogs are telling us. Every time this dog would get too close to the trigger dog, he would give a big lip lick. This “tell” or piece of body language would let me know that he was as close to the other dog as he could get without losing control of himself. Listening to what the dog was saying helped me to know when to send the owner back to the safety station. Lip licking is one of a raft of behaviours that dogs do when they are stressed; called displacement behaviours. These behaviours tell us that the dog is approaching a threshold of some sort and that we need to slow down. They can tell us when the dog is distressed or upset or when they need a break. Knowing your own dog and knowing how they tell you that they are over the point at which they are comfortable is an essential part of being successful with your dog. If you don’t respond when your dog is telling you these things, then your dog will think he has to face the world on his own steam. This degrades your relationship because your dog will learn that you won’t listen to him.

This dog is telling her person something important; likely that she is uncomfortable with the proximity of his gaze.  If her person is savvy, he will back off, and show her that he is listening to her.  When we don't hear what dogs tell us, they learn not to trust that we will listen and that degrades our relationships with our dogs.  Copyright: crazysub / 123RF Stock Photo
This dog is telling her person something important; likely that she is uncomfortable with the proximity of his gaze. If her person is savvy, he will back off, and show her that he is listening to her. When we don’t hear what dogs tell us, they learn not to trust that we will listen and that degrades our relationships with our dogs. Copyright: crazysub / 123RF Stock Photo

I have successfully helped several people teach their dogs how to tell them that they need a break in more concrete ways. One dog on my caseload learned to say “Go/No Go” for taking treats from strangers. The concept was really simple, but the ability to communicate that is behind this concept is fairly abstract. First we taught the dog to touch a target. Then we established two targets; one for “Go” and a very different target for “No Go”. If the dog randomly touched the “Go” target, he got a treat. If the dog randomly touched the “No Go” target the person offering the treats backed off and took the treats with them. This dog, a Scottish Terrier named BJ, amazed his people because he would sometimes turn down treats that he normally really liked depending on who was offering the treat. This gave BJ the ability to say when he was ready for interactions with new people, and by being able to say no when he was not ready, he was able to expand the number of people he could tolerate both offering him treats and eventually touching him.

Communication is a special ability that we can use with our dogs, if we are willing to be open to listening to what they have to say. We have to be aware of who our dogs are, what they say and how they say it, and then respond appropriately. Even if the response is “not now”, responding regularly and appropriately is an important way to deepen our relationship with our dogs.



Originally posted May 2013

In Ontario, where I live, the law says that every floor of every home shall have a working smoke detector.  The idea is that if the smoke detector goes off, you have a good chance of getting out before your house burns down.  That is the general idea.  The problem is that smoke detectors don’t work if they have used batteries or worse if they have no batteries at all.  They don’t work if you cut the wires that go to the alarm sound.  They don’t work if they are damaged.  They don’t work if the vents are painted over.  They don’t work if they are taken down and put on a table or the floor.  Smoke detectors only work if they have good batteries, are properly positioned and haven’t been painted over or tampered with.  If a fire starts and you don’t have an operational smoke detector, you are less likely to survive.  In fact, along with your smoke detector, you should probably also have an emergency plan.

Smoke detectors save lives, but only when they are properly installed and have good batteries in them.  Growling is the doggy equivalent of a smoke detector; before the bite happens the growl tells you it is coming.  It is not the only signal dogs give, but it is one of the most important ones. Image credit: 350jb / 123RF Stock Photo

In the past three weeks, I have encountered three clients who have dogs who have growled.  In all three cases my clients were appalled and in two of the three cases the dogs who growled were heavily chastised.  None of my clients were looking at their dog’s behaviour as information; they were looking at it as “bad behaviour”.  In one case the dog was in pain.  In the other two the dog was guarding something.

So what does it mean when a dog growls?  Growling is one of the behaviours that precedes a bite.  In fact, there is a whole sequence of behaviours that usually happen before the dog actually bites.  To begin with, the dog will orient on the target of his aggression, and then freeze.  That freeze behaviour is what happens while the dog thinks through what he is seeing.  In most dogs, you will see them freezing on a regular basis; they are startled or notice something, freeze, think about it a moment and move on.  Once in a while, whatever caught the dog’s attention will cause him sufficient alarm that he goes to the next stage; he will growl.  Growling is a signal from the dog that he is concerned.  When the signal is heard and heeded, the dog will stop growling.  When the dog is confronted, then one of two things happen; either you will win or you will lose.  If you win, the dog will back down and if you lose, the dog will bite you.

Confrontation is almost always a tactic that is risky.  If the dog is confronted often enough by a wide enough variety of people, then he will learn to differentiate between people who will win and people who will lose.  The dog will quickly learn that adults are more likely to be successful, and that children are less likely to be successful.  When the dog determines who to take on, and who to avoid, then he becomes particularly dangerous.  The dog also learns that growling is a tactic that can cause people to attack him, and so he will stop growling.  Let’s keep this in mind.

The dog stops growling.  That is what we want right?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Let’s re-examine the scenarios where my client’s dogs growled.  One was in pain.  Do you want your dog to suffer, or is it better that he tell you that he is hurting so that you can help him?  From where I sit, it would be better if he told me so that I could get him to the vet.  Two dogs were guarding valuable items.  Do I want my dogs to guard their stuff from me?  No, but the problem then isn’t that the dogs growled.  The problem is that they are resource guarding.  At the end of the day, addressing the symptom doesn’t change the problem.  The dog may not growl, but may still guard, and a guarding dog who doesn’t tell you that they are guarding is a dog who bites without warning.

Some of the most dangerous dogs I have met are dogs who don’t growl.  People are proud of the fact that their dog “would never growl”.  A dog who would never growl is a dog who won’t tell you that there is a problem and if things get out of hand or the dog is overwhelmed, then the dog is more likely to bite, and the people are more likely to be surprised.  When bites appear to come out of the blue, one of the questions I ask is about growling, and when people tell me that their dog doesn’t growl I am always concerned because orienting and freezing, the precursors to growling, are often less noticeable to people than is growling.  In those bite cases, the dog has often given tons of signals that a bite is coming but the clients are unaware of those signals because they are not terribly noticeable.

This dog is showing many of the other signals that dogs show before they bite; pinned ears, puckered mouth and his tongue drawn back out of the way.  If the target of this dog had listened to the growl that came first, he may not have escalated!    Photo:  Sue Alexander

Instead of preventing growling, what I really want to do is prevent the need to growl.  Fire prevention ends with a smoke alarm that goes off.  Fire prevention starts with an awareness of the risks, and heeding the signals about what might go wrong.  Birthday candles on a cake can be quite safe; leaving a lit candle in the window to memorialize a lost soldier and then going to the movies is outright dangerous.  Bite prevention starts with recognizing that we don’t need to put the dog in situations where he is going to feel threatened.

This does not mean that we should just allow a dog to do whatever he wants, but if you have a dog who growls when you reach for his bone, you will need to teach your dog that you are not a threat.  You will need to teach your dog that bones are items that he can have and that you will share but that he can also give up.  The best way to do this is to trade for undesired items to teach your dog a pattern, and then work up to trading items that do matter and then trade items that matter a lot.  This is an education and is much safer than teaching the dog to not growl.

The thing is, when you are looking at behaviour problems, you have to look first at what the problem is.  The symptom is not the problem.  Growling is just a symptom.  Resolving growling is like taking the batteries out of your smoke detector; you may not hear any alarms, but you won’t prevent any fires.  And the problem is that if you want to prevent bites, turning off the early warning system is probably the least logical thing to do.  Determining the problem is a much better tactic, and addressing the problem is the best thing you can do.

So what should you do in the case of a growling dog?  My best tactic is to remove the dog from the situation and then reward.  Yes, I reward dogs who growl.  If you are reliable about removing the dog from the situation, and then rewarding the dog, what happens is that the dog when he is frightened will begin to go to you for help, and leave the situation; in effect you teach the dog that he need not stand his ground because it is safe to leave.  It is an elegant self reinforcing loop where the distressed dog will leave the stressful event, and the reward becomes a decrease in stress.

How might that look with a painful dog?  Let’s say that you are approaching the back end of a dog with severe hip dysplasia.  She knows it is going to hurt if you bump into her, and she turns her head towards you, freezes for a very brief instant and growls.  All this happens in less than a second.  You stop and she stops growling.  Walk away, call her to you and give her a treat.  If you know that the dog is in pain, give her a dose of painkiller, or get out the heating pad and treat the pain.

How about the dog who is guarding a bone in their bed?  Again, you approach the dog, he raises his eyes, but not his head.  He stops chewing and freezes in place, and emits a slow growl.  You stop and step back, and leave the room and go to the treat cupboard, and call the dog to you and give him a treat.  Put him out in the yard or in his crate, go get his bone and then set up situations where you can teach him to trade safely.

And how about the dog who is eating dinner, and growls when your five year old walks by and drags her hand over his back?  You call the child away, and then call the dog to the treat cupboard for a treat, and move the bowl to a safer place for your dog to eat.  Children and dogs eating is one of the most important places to prepare for this activity.  If you have a dog and a child, consider carefully where you want to place food bowls.  Do not have children drag their fingers through the dog’s food bowl while they are eating; this is dangerous and not helpful in terms of teaching the dog to be tolerant of children during meals.  Consider this ritual from the dog’s perspective.  Imagine for a moment that you are eating your dinner and your brother in law comes in and drags his hands through your food.  Then, just as you are lifting your fork to your mouth with something incredibly delicious on it he snatches the food off your fork and puts it back on your plate.  Then he touches you all over your body.  Would you not complain?  (this should be a warning to all of my brothers in law, should you be reading; I will react considerably more strongly than just complaining!)

I have a good number of students who have brought me dogs and they tell me that they have been instructed to do this ritual by other trainers, by vets and by vet techs.  This ritual is extremely dangerous and there is nothing in it for the dog.  The original ritual as described by Dr. Ian Dunbar was for the child to bring the bowl to the dog and cue him to sit.  The child put the bowl down, and released the dog and then went and got the dog some “dessert” and added it to the bowl.  Nowhere did he describe dragging your fingers through your dog’s food.  In some bizarre forms of this ritual, I have had clients who have put their faces into the bowls with their dogs in an attempt to show the dog that they can control the food.  This sort of thing is extremely dangerous, and in my opinion disrespectful.  By all means, do the food bowl game where you add a treat for dessert to an already full or half eaten food bowl, but don’t drag your hands through the bowl; that is disrespectful, rude and dangerous.  And feed your dog in a quiet place where he can enjoy his dinner without the risk that someone will do something silly to him while he is enjoying his dinner!

This puppy is peacefully eating his meal.  Dragging your hand through his bowl is not just rude, it is dangerous.  And just because you can, doesn’t mean you should!  By all means, come in and add something delicious as a doggy dessert, but don’t put your hands into his food!  Image credit: andresr / 123RF Stock Photo

There are some dogs who are naturally extremely tolerant and who don’t feel the need to growl, but when a dog does growl, we need to understand that the growl is not about the dog taking over the world.  The growl is a smoke detector; it tells you that there is something happening that you need to attend to.  Punishing the growl just puts the dog in a situation where he cannot win.  He cannot tell you he is uncomfortable and he cannot avoid the situation that makes him uncomfortable, and if pushed, the inevitable will happen and eventually, he will take control with his teeth.  All too often, with a few alternatives provided to the dog, a serious bite can be avoided.  When a dog growls…Remove and Reward.




Stress and anxiety in puppies and dogs is something that we often see and many fail to recognize.  The internet is a fun and fascinating playground for the mind, and we are seeing more and more images that just aren’t that funny once you learn to recognize the signs.  Many of our clients don’t understand why we are upset when we see what they think of as a cute or funny image that they share with us.

No one wants to put a dog in a stressful situation and certainly if the dog were standing with his back arched and his tail tucked and averting his eyes and being avoidant, most of our clients would recognize the dog as upset.  The problem lies in the less obvious signs; those that are not extreme in their presentation.  If we saw a child who would not meet our gaze, who was all hunched over and blinking rapidly, who was afraid, we would not post that image on the internet to share as funny.  We need to stop doing this to dogs, but this phenomenon won’t stop until people recognize stress when they see it. Here is a short primer on how to know when a dog is stressed, and what you can do to alleviate stress in your dog or puppy.

One of the first questions that is often heard in this conversation is “How do YOU know?”  Dog body language is an area that we have spent a lot of time studying.  As early at the 1860s, Darwin was writing about the signs to look for in dogs to help you to understand what the dog is feeling.  Since then we have been collecting images, data and information to help us to better understand the behaviour of our canine friends.  The more you learn and know and the more you work with dogs, the more able you are to fine tune and develop an eye for what might happen.  When you work with dogs who might bite, you learn to notice when the dog’s eyes and ears, mouth, posture and motion tell you that you might be in danger.  A great book to read about dog body language is Barbara Handelman’s “Canine Behaviour; A Photo Illustrated Handbook”.  I was one of the editors on that project and it is a very good compendium of information about canine body language.

darwin dog 2
One of Charles Darwin’s drawings of a dog in distress.  No confusion here about what this dog means!

Let’s start with the eyes.  Eyes tell us a lot.  When the eye is almond shaped, we know the dog is relaxed.  When it is huge and round, we know the dog is really stressed out.  As always, the dog’s natural structure and facial configuration are going to contribute to the overall picture.  In a Pug or a Boxer or a French Bulldog, or any of the brachiocephalic breeds (those with the squished in faces), their relaxed eye is going to be much rounder than the relaxed eye of say a Labrador retriever.  See the images below and compare them.  The round eye is the eye of a dog in distress and the almond shaped eye is the eye of a relaxed dog.

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This Pug has a naturally rounded eye, and it is as relaxed as it can be due to the structure of his face.  Brachiocephalic dogs often have difficulty in social situations with other dogs because their eyes look rounded even when they are not upset or tense.

Staying for a moment in the eye department the other thing we look for in eyes is a huge rounded pupil.  Pupils should be big enough to allow in sufficient light to allow the dog to see, but under normal or high light conditions the pupil should not make up more than 50% of the dog’s eye.  When it does, there is either a medical condition or the dog is stressed.  Along with these big blown out pupils, we also see one of blinking.  When you see a dog blinking more frequently than is normal, you know that the dog is stressed.

Tense, frightened, rounded, blown pupil eye.
Compare the image above to this one.  This is the same dog in a different situation.

Sometimes what we see are dogs who look sleepy.  These dogs are often living with chronic stress.  If you look carefully at their eyes, they may be almond shaped, but more often they are pinched shut, with big pupils underneath.  These are dogs who live with so much distress that they don’t sleep well and they are legitimately tired and sleepy.  Like a pen that has been clicked too often, their systems just don’t respond terribly well, and they are almost in a state of stupor much of the time.  These dogs can be quite dangerous because by the time that they are in enough distress to bite, they don’t have any early warning signals to share with you; they just don’t have the energy.

Then let’s look at the mouth.  When a dog is panting to distribute heat, his tongue is full of blood and the vessels on the bottom of his tongue are dilated to shed the heat as quickly as possible.  His tongue should be a healthy pink and very moist.  When a dog is stressed, he may also pant, but the panting is much different.  Just before a dog bites, he draws his tongue deep back into his mouth and pulls his lips out of the way.  When a dog is stress panting they will often pant with their tongue drawn back into the mouth and their lips held close in so that they don’t hurt themselves if they do bite.    When you look at the corners of a stressed dog’s lips they appear to be pulled forward and the flews or lip flaps are tense.  Sometimes the only thing to see is a puckered whisker bed.  That whisker bed is telling and the story it tells is often chilling.

This image is of a dog doing protection work, immediately before he bit the sleeve.  Notice that he lips are pulled out of the way of his teeth and his tongue is pulled deep into his mouth and out of the way so he doesn’t get hurt.

Ears are another facet of the dog’s face that we can use to tell us what is happening internally with the dog.  When the base of the ear is pinned back against the head, and the skin between the corner of the eye and the corner of the ear is pulled taut, then the dog is telling you that he is afraid, worried or concerned.    It is important to realize that in a drop eared dog, you aren’t going to have the pointy end to look at; you are going to only have the base, so look at the base not the edges of the ears and the distance from the corner of the eye to the corner of the ear.  In a relaxed and happy dog, the skin between the eye and the ear should appear relaxed.

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You should recognize the tense eye now, and look at the tension in the area between the eye and the ear; the ears are pulled all the way back.
 Copy of zd
Eyes and ears together tell us that this dog is unhappy.
This image is of the same yellow lab above, in a relaxed and happy moment.  Notice that the skin between his eye and his ear is loose and relaxed, as is his mouth and his whisker bed.  This dog is relaxed and happy.

Just looking at the face, at the three points of eyes, ears and mouth, should give you enough information to allow you to determine if a still image is one of a relaxed and happy dog or if it is the image of a tense, stressed or frightened dog.  Once you know what you are looking for, the exercise becomes much easier.  The question now is “How do we help stressed dogs?”

Once the picture is taken, there isn’t much you can do to alleviate the distress in the dog, but you can do your part by recognizing when a dog is stressed and stop sharing the images.  When people send you these images, let your mail box be the last stop and return the information to the sender to help them to understand that the dog they are laughing at is uncomfortable and under stress.  When the dog is in front of you though, you have to ask yourself what is the source of the dog’s distress.

Eyes, ears and mouth together.  By now, you should recognize that our yellow lab friend is distressed and needs help getting out of what he thinks of as harm’s way.

If the source is obvious, the answers are easy.  If the source of the dog’s stress is a piece of pain inducing or traumatic equipment, get the equipment off the dog.  If the source of the dog’s stress is a confusing training situation, make the problem easier.  Repeated successes increase the chance that your dog will feel less not more stress.  When the dog feels threatened by a situation, get out of there.  If the dog is in pain, address the pain.  When the cause is simple, the answer is straightforward.

Sometimes though, the cause is not simple.  Sometimes the cause may be something known as layered stimuli.  If you have a dog who doesn’t like going to the vet, doesn’t like car rides, doesn’t like wearing his collar, doesn’t like other dogs and doesn’t like cats, then any one of those stimuli could cause him to be upset.  When you present your dog with all of those situations at once, you have layered all the stressful stimuli on top of one another, and your dog will be even more distressed.  Taking even one of those stimuli out of the picture might make things much easier for your dog.

Recently I worked with a dog who was aggressive towards other dogs, and who didn’t like being touched behind his ribs.  He walked normally, and he moved comfortably, but he didn’t want you to touch his back end.  We worked with the veterinarian and found out that this dog has severely impacted anal glands.  The problem had likely been creeping up on the dog for a long time, and he had become crankier and crankier towards other dogs over time.  By the time he saw me, he was very cranky with other dogs, and he was in a lot of pain.  When we addressed the pain issue, this dog was able to start to learn that he was not under threat.  In evolutionary behaviour we learned about something called ultimate and proximate causes.  The proximate or close cause of this dog’s problem was defensive behaviour to protect himself from the ultimate cause of being in pain.  When we addressed the ultimate cause, we were better able to address the proximate cause.

Below is the image that caused me to think about how we often don’t recognize that a dog is in distress.  Funny picture?  Not really, but the people who have been sharing it thought it was.  This is a dog who looks to me like he is very stressed and frightened.  This is a dog who looks to me like he learned his trick with a lot of force, but it is completely possible that this was gently taught.  The dog may be so conflicted about not taking the cookies that he looks very distressed.  When you are presented with a dog who is showing these signs, point them out and help others to learn that part of protecting your dog’s best interests include ensuring that he is not under distress.


Below are three images from my archives.  See if you can pick out which dogs are stressed and which ones are not.

airplane ears
Look at the eyes, the ears and the mouth.  Is this dog having any fun?  Not really.  If the handler isn’t careful, she will get bitten.  Photo:  Barbara Handelman
Keep in mind that this dog is a brachiocephalic breed and cannot make his eyes any less round.  Look at the distance between the corners of the eye and the ear.  The mouth looks a little tense, but again, due to the shape of his face this dog likely cannot make his mouth less tense.  This dog is quite relaxed.
 aggressive stance with paw lift 538
This lovely image really shows you how far back a dog can pull his tongue out of the way.  Although his eyes appear almond shaped, look at the tension between the corner of his eye and ear; likely his eyes are rounded and pupils blown, but his ear is pulling the eye out of shape.  This is a very unhappy dog.  Photo: Barbara Handelman